Set in Jerusalem in 1977 and based on a true story, Past Life is a tangle of secrets. Safe in Israel after escaping the Nazis during World War II, Dr. Baruch Milch (Doron Tavori) has raised a family and is a successful gynecologist. But when his youngest daughter Sephi (Joy Rieger) is invited to Berlin to sing at a concert, his peaceful life is turned upside down. A Polish woman (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) accosts her and tells her that her father is a murderer. Back at home, she doesn’t immediately tell him about the experience, but she does tell her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar) who’s a liberal journalist and who is determined to get to the truth of the story. The sisters have never really talked with their Holocaust survivor parents about their wartime experiences, and their sudden interest uncovers painful and sad memories and exposes the sisters’ unspoken emotions regarding their father. And throughout the girls’ investigation, you have no idea which way it’s going to go, but you can feel that Sephi is truly afraid of what she’ll find.

Sephi is a talented chorale singer but she really wants to be a composer. Her vocal coach poo-poos the idea that a girl can do that. But it turns out the woman who yelled at her is the mother of a well-known young composer and conductor named Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak). And since their families are somehow linked by the war, they help each other uncover the secret that haunts them all. Meanwhile, Nana grows more skeptical after confronting their father and has a health crisis she thinks may be karma for his sin. There are several subplots going while the central “what happened?” narrative winds its way through. And somehow director Avi Nesher keeps them all from running into each other.

Both of the actresses are outstanding. And the music is wonderful. The engaging script was an adaption of the real Dr. Baruch Milch’s wartime diaries, which his daughter, the inspiration for Nana, edited into the book “Can Heaven Be Void?” Her sister, on whom Sephi was based, composed several pieces for the film. I wish this would get a wider release, because it’s a powerful and well told family drama, but it will most likely get a mostly Jewish and Arty crowd. See it if you can. (In English, German, Polish, and Hebrew with subtitles.)

One thought on “Past Life Review”
  1. Past Life is probably the most mainstream accessible of the Israeli films we’ve seen in recent weeks (i.e. The Wedding Plan, The Women’s Balcony). No comedy in this one though! It’s an intriguing family drama/mystery that is also a holocaust survival story based on actual events. That makes it all the more fascinating and refreshing. I agree wholeheartedly with Arty Chick – the actresses who play the sisters are outstanding, and the music is wonderful too.

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